By Pat Jankiewicz
"Bring Up Bart; Story Editor Jon Vitti reveals how difficult it is to get
'The Simpsons' to behave"
The big thing from the beginning has been to preserve the emotional reality of the characters," says Jon Vitti, the boyishly enthusiastic story editor of The Simpsons. "Even though they're cartoon characters, if you insult them, they get mad. It's not the sort of TV give-and-take where somebody is called much worse than you would ever say to a real person, and they just go about their business."
Relaxing in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot, it's not hard to think about The Simpsons, as the bug-eyed, buck-toothed bunch are all around the room in the form of dolls, posters, pictures and cels. "I kind of appreciate going somewhere and not seeing a Simpsons poster," he jokes.
"My first assignment on the show was to pitch five story ideas, and out of those, one got reworked into the 'bachelor party' show and another into the 'genius school' show. Our lead time is tremendous, so there are always seven months of crossing our fingers and hoping some other show doesn't do our ideas once we write them up. It has happened!"
Has the Fox Broadcasting Company ever "had a cow" over the series' outrageous antics? "The network has never really given us any trouble about what we can or can't do," Vitti states. "We got censorship notes, but most of them are about words or small scenes, they've never come down on the stories in general. The most trouble we had was Bart going to a mud-wrestling club. Just him being in the outside chamber - we didn't even have him in the club! Fox really wanted us to cut that scene. We just went ahead and did it, and more or less dared them not to air it.
"We give things back to them, though," he concedes, "if they're not important to the story and Fox is really upset about them. Like Homer's words, he's always walking the line of obscenity. In one show this year, he's trying to make a fire, we had him say, 'Screw this!' and throw it down. It's not an obscene reference, but that's where its origins are. They've also tried to have Bart not say, 'Hell,' but we felt kids know the word, say the word, and it wouldn't change the world to have Bart say it."
The show writers, the story editor points out, regulate themselves. "Many times, there will be discussions within the group about whether something's in good taste or a good idea. We have a story this season where Bart fancies himself a daredevil, and starts doing tricks on his skateboard. We had a discussion, 'Is this going to make kids copy it?' and took out several jokes that you could do on cartoons, but would actually encourage kids to do dangerous stuff. We did that ourselves.
Being a story editor isn't much different than being a writer. Says Vitti, "The show works like this: Sam [Simon] and Matt [Groening] supervise everything, Mike [Reiss] and Al [Jean] supervise the script process with Jim Brooks, and everybody else is a writer.
"We write scripts after table readings and just before them, then we go into a room and rewrite them line by line. Everybody has something in every script, but it's much more of a group process than you would think from just watching the credits. The show is a team effort."
Of the episodes he has written, does Vitti have a favorite? "I would have to say 'Bart the Genius' is still my favorite. I started out writing a list of everything bad Bart could do, and what would happen if he did it."
While the episode, about Bart cheating on an intelligence test, is hilarious, the writer based it on a real-life event that isn't funny at all. "It's kind of a sad story. There were some kids in my class as smart as any of the rest of us. In sixth grade, we were given intelligence tests.
"These guys just didn't take it seriously; they were writing their names in the bubbles and drawing Christmas trees. The next year, in junior high school, they were in all the stupid classes. It ruined their lives; they were knocked years behind the rest of us. We thought they were really cool when they were doing it, but we were actually watching them wreck their lives. So, when it came to using that, it was obvious Bart was already stupid, so I had to stand it on its head to use it for The Simpsons.
"My favorite show overall was the bully show ["Bart the General"], written by John Schwartzenhelder. With its third act, its cinematic nature of jumping from scene to scene, and references to other movies, it was not only really funny, but it was also a jumping-off point for many things done on the series. It laid the groundwork for the visual things we've done ever since."
Every show doesn't come off perfectly. "The most troublesome show was the one that became our last episode last season, the babysitter episode. It was supposed to be our premiere. It still has traces of the technical problems in it. There was a director on the original team who had a really different philosophy of animation. It was fine for other shows, but he insisted on trying it on The Simpsons.
"That's why we premiered in January instead of October," the story editor grimly notes. "One show came back with 50% unusable footage; I heard it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in retakes. Animation is cheap if done very simply.
"There's a little suspense when the show goes off to Korea to be animated," Vitti admits. "Because the last step we see is white on black drawings with key poses of the characters. There are many problems you can't catch at that state, and the first time you see them, they're completely drawn out, hundreds of frames, and there's nothing you can do about them. Klasky Csupo, the people who do our animation, do a wonderful job. We're lucky to have them."
Kent Butterworth (CS #16), a director of several episodes, felt that the show is handled more like a sitcom than a cartoon. "I think the writing process is exactly like a sitcom," Vitti observes. "The one difference is that you don't have run-throughs with the cast, making it easier for time. Other than that, the writing process is identical up until we send off the script, then it becomes exactly like a cartoon show. It's a real split.
"It's much more fun to write a cartoon," he continues. "It's going to be a very sad day when I have to write live-action again. The flexibility of cartoons is so great. The way you can structure the stories, you don't have to do these long five-minute living room scenes with people sitting on a couch, which you have to do for money reasons when writing live action. With five minutes of cartoon footage, it's just as easy to have 12 scenes as three.
"The scriptwriting process [on this show] is usually pretty lonely. You're writing the script by yourself, with notes from other people. I have my notebook of jokes for the story that got pitched out. There will occasionally be a script like the exchange student show, where we just wrote it in the room from scratch. It's usually a pretty loose room, we tend to waste a lot of time talking about actual stuff other than The Simpsons.
Voices are one of The Simpsons' special strengths. "We've been very fortunate with the show's cast. We got Dan Castellana, the voice of Homer, because they wanted to use Tracy Ullman Show cast members. It's interesting. They take shots at each other's characters. Harry [Shearer] can do Homer, Dan's character, and Dan can do a pretty good Mr. Burns, Harry's character, but nobody else can do Bart. It's a physically amazing voice."
Behind every good underachiever, the writer reveals, there is a woman. "Bart's done by a woman named Nancy Cartwright. She ad libs a lot of lines for Bart, and knows him inside and out. Nancy has contributed a lot to the character. The voice takes precedence in animation," he states. "We make it sound funny. and then have the pictures to match that.
The writers, though, had no idea that Bart's favorite lines of dialogue would be coming out of nearly every viewer's mouth. "The Bart catch phrases were never meant to be catch phrases!" he insists with a grin. "They've become that on their own. I wrote 'Eat my shorts!' in "Bart the Genius' and that's the only time he ever said it on the show.
"We didn't think of it as a catch phrase, yet it turned up on many weird places. TV Guide had 'Bart to Cosby: Eat my shorts,' the Enquirer used it, and I think there's even a T-shirt. We try to make Bart inhumanly clever, so many of his phrases like 'Don't have a cow, man,' already exist. We were just trying to portray what kids would really say."
Some references are actually a bit closer to home. Members of Vitti's family are "afraid I'm going to put them in it. Every time any little detail works its way in, like the couch being held up by a dictionary, it's either a very happy or somewhat annoyed reaction. "My brother used to take pictures of his rear end, and that made its way into the show, so he was very proud that his old pastime had gotten on television! I have occasional references, like a cousin who spends way too much money on lottery tickets. I use different people for different things. My brother tends to be Bart, my cousin tends to be Homer."
Simpsons creator Matt Groening wasn't at all the sort of person the story editor thought he would meet, Vitti admits. "I had read all of his books before I had got here, and I didn't know what to expect because the cartoons are so intense. He's very much the opposite of that in person - he's a friendly, happy guy. It was a pleasant surprise, because, as neat as those caricatures are, you don't want to be working for a dark, brooding, angry guy.
"This year, he's really being run tagged because the merchandising has taken off. It's an impossible task, but he tries to make sure the licenses are handed out to people who won't try to completely exploit it. The talking Bart is my favorite. I've been holding out, hoping they would give me one for free, but I guess I'll have to buy one!"
But Vitti points out that the Simpsons producer also deserves a great deal of credit for the show's success.
"Sam Simon is really the most undermentioned guy in the series. He's completely hand-on, line by line, writes a huge portion of every script, the structure and story pacing are largely his, but because there's no book of Sam Simon cartoons you can read, people don't really respond to the name."
Vitti can't stress the producer's influence on the show enough. "He is the final guy for storyboards, scripts, soundtracks. He directs the recording sessions. Because of his background in 30-minute television with shows like Taxi and Cheers, Sam is always steering us out of stock TV situations."
The writer smirks good-naturedly. "Thanks to Sam, Bart will never be hypnotized, there will never be a show with Bart lying in a hospital bed with cut-in clips from old shows, and nobody will ever get amnesia and have to be reminded of what happened by cutting different episodes together!"
Some feel The Simpsons expresses contempt for Saturday morning cartoons, particularly with the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons that Bart watches. "On the one hand, we may be coming down on Saturday morning animation, but on the other, Itchy and Scratchy is our favorite part of the show," Jon Vitti remarks. "There's a love/hate relationship with cartoons. We love the Warner Bros./Popeye/Tex Avery cartoons, it's the state they're in today that bothers us."
Transcribed by Bruce Gomes
Last updated on December 6, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)